Risk and Protective Factors

Hitting the Mark

Many different factors can influence a student’s substance misuse. Effective prevention focuses on reducing those risk factors and strengthening the protective factors that are closely associated with the problem being addressed. As a prevention professional, you want to identify the factors having the greatest impact on your target population.


Risk factors are often positively correlated with one another and are negatively correlated to protective factors. For example, individuals with some risk factors have a higher chance of experiencing more risk factors, and vice versa for protective factors.

Although many interventions are designed to produce a single outcome, both risk and protective factors can be linked to multiple outcomes. For example, negative life events are associated with substance misuse as well as depression and anxiety. Prevention efforts targeting a cluster of risk and protective factors have potential to produce multiple positive effects.

Too often when working with college prevention professionals, we work together to identify the target risk and protective factors. Yet when it comes to selecting a strategy to address those factors many miss the mark. Their selected strategy doesn’t impact the identified factor(s).

For example:

  • The identified risk factor of availability and access to alcohol
  • Selected strategy of 8 am classes would not impact this factor
  • A more fitting strategy would be conducting compliance checks or responsible beverage seller and server training

The more we understand risk factors, protective factors, how they interact, and evidence based strategies, the better prepared we will be to develop the appropriate interventions.

What risk and protective factors have you identified on your campus?

Feel free to leave a comment below and let’s chat.